HC Deb 06 November 1979 vol 973 cc225-8
Mr. Eldon Griffiths

(by private notice) asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement about the attack on the British embassy in Tehran.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

At about 10 minutes to six yesterday evening, Tehran time, armed intruders broke into the British embassy compound and shortly thereafter took over the whole of our embassy building. The staff in the area at the time were taken, together with those wives and children who live in the embassy compound, to the house of the chargé d'affaires, Mr. Wyatt. They were not ill-treated, but were held under armed guard. The identity of the intruders and the motives for their attack on the embassy are still not wholly clear. Contacts between embassy officials and the intruders took place over a period of about five hours, after which they withdrew from the premises.

We have protested strongly to the Iranian Government at this attack on our embassy. A protest was made to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran and I spoke yesterday afternoon to the counsellor in charge of the Iranian embassy here. It is imperative that the Iranian Government fulfil their clear obligations under the Vienna convention and take adequate measures to protect diplomatic lives and premises.

Mr. Griffiths

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Will he please answer the following questions? What is the position of other British nationals in Iran? How many are there, and are they safe? What is to be the position about relations between Iran and any other Government, including our own, if diplomatic missions are not guaranteed to be inviolate?

Will my hon. Friend give an undertaking that since there must be a likelihood that Iran will not, or will not be able to, deliver its supplies of oil, there are contingency plans available in Europe and with the Americans to avoid a further scramble of the sort that we saw last time? Will he also give an undertaking that the Government will not be a party to arrangements to send back the Shah, a sick man, to meet the blood lust of the Tehran mob?

Mr. Hurd

The British community in Iran, although smaller than it used to be, still numbers about 500. It is not under direct threat. The attack on the embassy clearly had some political intention and was not aimed at individuals, but one reason why we are determined to keep an embassy in Iran is that there is still a sizeable British community there.

We were in touch yesterday and have been in touch again today with our Community partners and the United States on my hon. Friend's second point. If there be a Government, calling themselves a Government, in Tehran, one of their clear duties under international law is to protect the diplomats accredited to them.

Of course, we are all the time considering the oil supply situation and what action we and our friends may have to take. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said about the Shah.

Mr. Dalyell

Given the increasing vulnerability of embassies of all countries throughout the world, is there not a case for international discussion of the updating of the Vienna convention?

Mr. Hurd

That is very much in our minds. Our embassies and those of other countries are increasingly at risk. Two of our ambassadors have been murdered in the past few years. But however hard one considers the matter one is driven back to the conclusion that although we can secure embassies against an individual intruder there is no escaping the fact that when an armed mob appears the responsibility for protecting an embassy must rest on the host Government. However we look at the problem, that is the answer that we are forced back to.

Mr. Temple-Morris

Is my hon. Friend aware that we are perhaps not at the end of the road of Tehran-based emergencies? Does he agree that yesterday's events and any future events must have a cool and firm response from the Government? As part of that response, will the Government make clear on any occasion that demands it that the Iranian Government and people cannot eat without the West, and the help of the West, and that there is nowhere else for them, with their theocracy, to go?

Mr. Hurd

I agree with my hon. Friend. I do not think that we can let the matter of yesterday's incident—which, as far as we are concerned, is closed—rest there. That is why we are in touch with the other Community countries represented in Tehran and with the United States. Further action will be required to bring home to the authorities in Tehran that under international law they have a clear obligation, which they have been neglecting.

Mr. Shore

We strongly endorse and reinforce the protest made by the Government, both in respect of the occupation of the British embassy and the temporary detention of British wives and children in Tehran.

Can the Minister say anything about reports that the Bazargan Government have tendered their resignation? If there is to be a change of Government in Tehran, will the hon. Gentleman make clear to whoever takes on responsibility that we expect minimum standards of conduct in relation to our diplomats, since otherwise it will not be worth having diplomacy in countries that so flagrantly flout the rules? Will the Minister also consult urgently other oil-consuming countries about arrangements that may have to be made if oil supplies from Iran are intercepted?

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman has said. There are reports that Prime Minister Bazargan has once again tendered his resignation. I think that the right hon. Gentleman is right in his implication that the political situation in Tehran and throughout Iran is likely to remain confused for some time, but that does not alter the obligations on the authorities in Iran to afford protection to diplomats in their capital.

I think that I have already answered the point about oil supplies. It is clearly a major Western interest that we should keep in close touch all the time with our partners and watch carefully and plan against possible developments to our detriment.

As for diplomacy, we have to make a judgment on whether we want to send British diplomats and their families to Tehran—there are just over 100 people involved—in such an insecure situation. We have taken the view that because Iran will continue to be an important country in the Middle East it is right that we should ask those in our Diplomatic Service to undertake that risk. I believe that that is the correct judgment at the present time.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call one more hon. Member from either side. This is an extension of Question Time.

Mr. David Price

Following my hon. Friend's reply, will he consider whether it is right to expose to danger the wives and families of British diplomats in exposed posts such as Tehran? May there not be a case for unaccompanied service in those exposed posts?

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend has raised an important point about foreign service. The wives and families were brought out of Tehran. They were then allowed to return earlier this year. This is a difficult judgment. It is not sensible to ask people to remain on unaccompanied service in a difficult post for too long. Obviously, if the situation continues to be turbulent, confused and dangerous, this is a judgment that we must look at again.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Does the Minister agree that not only the Shah would be at risk if returning to Tehran, but that many Iranian students in this country would also be at risk, having been here for sometime and become Westernised? Will the hon. Gentleman undertake to persuade the Prime Minister and other Ministers to discuss the problem that is now arising as a result of the Government's paranoia about immigration? Deportation notices are now being served on Iranian students who do not want to return, forcing them to return. They are at risk if they return. Would not the Government consider extending to many of these students the well-known British hospitality, in terms of political asylum?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman is going very wide of the question. If he has specific points about individuals whom he believes are at risk as a result of their political opinions, I suggest that he raises them with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

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